On 7 January 2013, Sony announced they had stopped production of the PlayStation 2 computer entertainment system. Google says that more than 1.5 billion games were sold for the PlayStation 2 worldwide in its 12-plus-change years of success.
The PlayStation 2 was everywhere at a time when video games were not everywhere. Not everyone had a PlayStation 2, though most people who identified as game-players had one. And as DVD finally replaced VHS—I sold my parents on DVD by explaining you didn’t have to rewind them—the PlayStation 2 made a whole bunch of extra sales. Who can forget the “Compatible with PlayStation 2" stickers on every other DVD, back then?
Was the PlayStation 2 the most successful game console in history? Maybe it was.
Much as I’d like to say that the Super Nintendo Entertainment System was the best and most historically important, maybe it’s not—maybe the Nintendo Entertainment System is.
What the PlayStation 2 had, though, was market penetration and literally thousands of games. The PlayStation 2 allowed some awesome people to make some weird stuff. I worked at Sony in Tokyo back in the early PlayStation 2 era, for a couple of years. Part of my job was playing games as they came out. I tell you what: there was a lot of weird stuff on the PlayStation 2, and so much of it was brilliant. There was a puzzle-action game about working at a Yoshinoya beef bowl shop. I played a dozen for-girls dating sims I’d never have played if they weren’t free in a stack on my desk.
There was a lot of weird stuff on the PlayStation 2, and so much of it was brilliant.
This isn’t an obituary or a eulogy.
The PlayStation 2 isn’t “dead”. It’s just that they aren’t going to be making them anymore. This is hardly a sad occasion—look at how long Sony held on to the darn thing! They didn’t abandon it. Remember when Microsoft abandoned the Xbox in order to focus on Xbox 360? Look how Sony doesn’t abandon the PSP even today, with the Vita on the market. The biggest upcoming Japanese Vita games have PSP versions available on day one. That’s borderline insane, business-wise, though talk about customer service.
The PlayStation 2 is the child of the PlayStation, which was home to the beautifully scary-weirdest collection of brilliant games we’ll likely ever see on one non-iOS console (Jumping Flash! Suikoden II! Popolocrois! Breath of Fire IV! Tail of the Sun! Tail Concerto! Linda Cube! Devil Dice! No One Can Stop Mister Domino! Incredible Crisis!).
In time, PlayStation games will become The New Retro—it was not until the PlayStation 2 days that retro pixel art became the cool sort of thing to put on a T-shirt. In two years’ time, when Hot Topic shoppers gaze upon Megaman and weep, it will be Megaman Legends Megaman upon whom they gaze while weeping. It will be Jumping Flash—not Sonic the Hedgehog—that everyone pretends to have always loved. Well, maybe this is a fantasy of mine—I am in fact a bit of a polygonist. [Editor’s note: Watch it, Tim.] Though I like to think it was because Sony was so benevolent toward weird ideas that they ended up with so many great games on the PlayStation, and that it was because the PlayStation had so many quirky games that it attracted a mainstream-enough audience (Gran Turismo!) which allowed for the PlayStation 2. Say what you will of Sony’s next (and current) business moves; PlayStation and PlayStation 2 were a golden age for games—maybe the golden age for games. And on PlayStation 2, there are so many that no critic might ever know them all.
I come to you today with a list of my absolute favorite, most-adored PlayStation 2 games, and a few words about why each one of them is special to me.
I owned many dozens of PlayStation 2 games in my day; what follows are the ones that will stay on my Shelf Of Heroes for eternity, alongside The Best Films Of All-Time: “Apocalypto,” “Conan The Barbarian”, “The Fifth Element”, and “Heist” (which isn’t even on Blu-ray yet).
My failure to include legendary games such as Persona 3, Persona 4, Shin Megami Tensei Nocturne, Ico, Shadow of the Colossus, Katamari Damacy, or any number of other fantastic experiences is not meant in the least as a slight. I tried to pick games I consider overlooked or under-appreciated. Lack of Metal Gear Solid games, however, is in fact meant as a slight. Sorry! (Just kidding: Metal Gear Solid 3 is an all-time great.)
I will not mention Grand Theft Auto III, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, or Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, because those games, though brilliant, were mere prototypes of the experience I believe Rockstar will deliver in the future. The same general rule applies to the Devils May Cry (which, for the record, I love) the Gods of War (which, for the record, I hate), or the glorious Winning Eleven Pro Evolution Soccer games. I prize holisticism, completeness, and the spice of originality. These games are complete experiences.
Get thee to a GameStop, then, before used PlayStation 2 titles go the way of Dreamcast and Gamecube.
8. Psi-Ops: The Mindgate Conspiracy
I don’t have too much to say about this game, other than that the Japanese box art is by frequent SNK contributor Shinkiro, and it is amazing. I lost my original Japanese copy in a freak accident, though it will never leave the shelf in my heart. Psi-Ops is a weird shooter, and you know what? As the next entry will illustrate, we need weird shooters. We absolutely need them.
Psi-Ops’ chief weirdness is your character’s telekinetic ability: you can push and throw boxes around. No, Star Wars: The Force Unleashed has absolutely nothing on this. Psi-Ops is relentlessly, stupidly smart and its action is full of more nifty nuances than a box full of nifty nuances. Aside from that, I don’t have too much to say—just that I’d have to shoot myself in the face with a potato gun if I didn’t mention it.
7. Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex
Developer cavia (that’s trademarked lowercase) is one of those game development tragedies. They were a weird sort of super-group cobbled together from frustrated developers of yearly series such as Ace Combat who, after striking out on their own with huge ambitions, ended up doing only licensed games. Sometimes, the mission was to make a Naruto or Dragon Ball Z game, which was easy enough. Other times, they had to turn a marathon runner (Naoko Takahashi) into a video game, somehow, anyhow. What happened more or less every god darn time was—well, they made something brilliant. Even Naoko Takahashi’s Let’s Run A Marathon! is a pretty original sort of quirky decision-heavy (fitness-themed) graphical adventure.
Their first original title—Drakengard—didn’t set the world on fire, so they hopped back over to sports games and licensed games, eventually developing the not-so-profitable Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex for the PlayStation 2 in 2004. Here’s the reason licensed games usually suck: Activision’s James Bond 007 games may be made with the Call of Duty engine, though why would Activision pay 20 full-time level designers competitive salaries for two years to make a game they’re going to owe royalties on? They want those guys over on something they own. Now, for a starting-out company like cavia, they have to prove themselves somehow. So they raged into Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, and no one noticed because it was “just a licensed game”.
American reviews summarized it as banal. It’s most certainly not: I love this game like a little brother. It’s a Japanese-made proto-third-person-shooter with platform elements (wall-jumping!). The guns pop. The camera movement is smart. The levels are spatially striking, dynamic with regard to elevation, and typically small in scale. Every gunfight is a frictive, snappy, tight little contest. It’s by no means The Perfect Video game, though it is crammed so deliciously with perfect 30-second bursts of level design that it warrants a re-study or two.
Win Back: Project Poseidon, a questionably late, cavia-developed sequel to Koei’s patently unloved Win Back for the Nintendo 64, feels very much like Stand Alone Complex (for excellent reasons), though Stand Alone Complex has neat platforming, some Yoko “Cowboy Bebop” Kanno music, and voice-acting by Akio “Solid Snake” Otsuka, so it wins out. Win Back: Project Poseidon, however, is available for $9.99 as a PS2 Classic on the PlayStation Store, whereas Stand Alone Complex most certainly is not).
6. Steambot Chronicles
Beneath any “wacky” summary—an open-world role-playing game where you customize a stomping, punching, shooting robot and can play a harmonica rhythm minigame on the city streets to grind for cash—you have what is easily the biggest exhibition of “heart” in the history of video games.
I glowed about this game in Edge magazine and gave the US marketers at Atlus a fantastic smorgasbord of review quotes for the box, though they ended up going with a Hardcore Gaming 101 quote: “If Hayao Miyazaki made a sandbox game”, the quote insisted, Steambot Chronicles would be it. I am not so sure about that—I would rather say, if Shigeru Miyamoto tried to make a Final Fantasy game, it would be Steambot Chronicles. It’s beautiful, huge-big, and weird.
Do you know anyone who loves Megaman Legends? If so, hug them. And then, know that Steambot Chronicles delivers a whole ladleful more of what that game promised. The sadness is that sequels or inspired-bys never came. The game is glitchy and rushed and is bursting at the seams. (For the love of god, it’s $5 used at GameStop.)
5. God Hand
I have been a big evangelist for this game, over the years. I said in my review that it’s “like writing a friendly letter by hand while wearing brass knuckles”.
It’s like using a chainsaw to cut your birthday cake.
It is true that, as I wrote, the first time you play it, God Hand makes about as much sense as the first time you wear ice skates. Anyone coming to the game today—it’s $9.99 as a PlayStation 2 classic on the PlayStation Store—might say they hate the way the camera moves, or the way the character moves. You might want the right stick to control the camera. However, the right stick is for your hyper-multi-directional dodge. You are going to need that dodge.
This is a game soaked in its milliseconds. It is brutally beautiful. It is brutalful.
Its story is flaming hideous nonsense, with a voice script reading like the work of a vintage typewriter dropped down a spiral staircase. Its visual themes exert passing familiarity—definitely not what we’d call “knowledge”—of several genres of film, such as “western” or “schlock”, and its music is incredibly peppy-weird stuff. Though Shinji Mikami’s next game, Vanquish, carried the banner of God Hand’s weird mechanical playfulness, nothing—nothing (nothing)—beats God Hand.
Like a wizard, it shows up precisely when it means to. There is no harder game—where, by “hard”, I mean tough and real.
4. Spartan: Total Warrior
Spartan: Total Warrior is the sharpest game in existence, bar slitting your wrist with a DVD shard. I once called it the twenty-fourth-best game of all-time, shunning even God Hand.
Spartan is action game perfection, with exactly as many tells and telegraphs and single-frame-precise parries and blocks as a game would need. It happens to be set under the umbrella theme of “Ancient Greece”, so its graphics are pleasantly full of glittery bronze armor, silver swords, and brown sandals. I was there, at the E3 where this game was announced: the first God of War was in the booth next door. Journalists were forced to make an unfortunate comparison between the two. Lacking God of War’s bombast, Spartan was eventually passed down the ladder and compared to Dynasty Warriors, of all things. It is not Dynasty Warriors. To paraphrase Bruce Lee, enemies in Dynasty Warriors don’t hit back. In Spartan, they’re always hitting back, flinging themselves at you with terrifying ferocity.
The folks at Creative Assembly—makers of the Total War series—unfortunately erred in the choice to be decent and respectable about the mythology theme. Oh, well. Spartan: Total Warrior, with its nail-sharp combat and strategic level design, is the online deathmatch e-sport game we deserve here in the 21st century. It was never meant to be: Creative Assembly made one more action game (the stumbly open-worlder Viking: Battle for Asgard) before heading back to strategy games, probably for good.
A sharper, snappier, stickier, crunchier action game you will not find, not among the Devils May Cry and the Gods of War or even the Bayonettas. (Just $12.99 used at GameStop! Also released for Xbox and Gamecube, though PS2 was the lead platform, and the game was designed with the PS2 controller in mind.)
3. Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter
Where others would place Shadow of the Colossus, I place Breath of Fire V: Dragon Quarter.
It’s a sort of work of art.
It’s dark, it’s depressing—and it has an opening voiced monologue in that same made-up language used in Shadow of the Colossus. Hey! What a coincidence. I love this game.
It’s a fantastic twist on the “escape from an undesirable place” theme of prior games like S.O.S., and later games like Dead Rising. The player is a police officer of sorts in a city deep underground. The common knowledge is that the human race had to head underground thousands of years ago, when the surface became uninhabitable. Some bad things happen. You meet a girl. She has fairy wings. You’re supposed to kill her. She’s too cute and frail, so you don’t, and your partner turns on you. A mysterious bounty hunter shows up. You escape. You, the girl, and the bounty hunter spend the rest of the time climbing—(rough rock) walls, (dilapidated metal) stairs, (rickety) elevators. What’s up there? Who knows. Your instruments for answering the big question are a rock-solid battle system (in which fights occur on in-game terrain using a sort of prototypical Valkyria Chronicles real-time movement scheme), the ability to start the whole game over whenever you want, and a blast of omnipotent dragon breath which slowly depletes a long, always-on-screen (always!) power meter. It’s perma-death when that meter runs out.
To top it off, the music (by Final Fantasy Tactics’ Hitoshi Sakimoto and Chrono Cross’s Yasunori Mitsuda) is incredible. The main criticism at the time of its release was that it was “too short”. Too short! It’s 10 hours long. An amazing 10 hours.
2. Raw Danger
Raw Danger, Irem’s nearly invisible sequel to Disaster Report, is one of the best video games ever made. Disaster Report gave players a somewhat boring tour through the life of a survivor post-massive-earthquake. Raw Danger is denser and weirder, taking place in a high-tech floating city on a futuristic man-made island. The opening scene sees the player as a waiter, pushing a service cart at a packed dedication ceremony in a fancy hotel ballroom. Oh, also, it’s Christmas. Hard rain is pelting on the roof above, and Christmas carols are jingling. When you head back to the kitchen after your first successful service, you just barely see an object fall over. Water is seeping in under the door.
This isn’t some graphic adventure, either—it’s a fully realized three-dimensional sandbox world—one from the same heartful public-lovers at Irem who brought you Steambot Chronicles.
Little things add up—help someone find a contact lens in the ballroom, make eyes with a politician’s daughter—and sooner or later the kitchen staff are up to their ankles. Things get terrifying with horrifying quickness, and sooner or later you know a dozen fictional peoples’ names and are squeezing your controller so hard it might crack.
Then, you finish the game, and learn that your decisions—this is, after all, a love story and a survival story hugging in a restless spiral—actually meant something.
Now you can play as someone else... and then someone else, and then someone else. And hey! There’s Previous You, doing what you previously did. It’s all the charms of the graphic adventure games people love, in an action-game world full of beautifully-sketched soap opera characters.
Released at a time when critics were just starting to seek for a “Citizen Kane” of games, unfortunately no one was looking for the “General Hospital Hugging Die Hard” of games, so Raw Danger fell into obscurity (also, it is ridden with performance-related bugs (still holding out hope for a PC version (that was a joke))). Whenever I tell people I want a “romantic comedy Grand Theft Auto”, I’m probably thinking about Raw Danger, and the rainy flu-sick four-day weekend of my life it once painlessly devoured.
Maybe now that Walking Dead is sweeping all those awards, we’ll see Raw Danger’s legacy avenged.
1. Jak II
Though my weird jerk heart burns to put some weird jerk selection at the top of my hall of fame, there is only Jak II. After Crash Bandicoot, Naughty Dog claimed their next series was going to be something truly special. Was it? I’m not sure. Jak and Daxter was the vanguard of many Sony-published, excellent cartoon-mascot games on the PlayStation 2—among Ratchet and Clank and Sly Cooper—though did it set the world on fire, even a little bit? Did any of those series become household names? I don’t reckon so. I reckon Angry Birds won that battle.
Jak and Daxter was a weird little Banjo-Kazooie-like, which was itself a Super Mario 64-like. Jak and Daxter was the video game equivalent of a Saturday morning cartoon. Jak II was a cartoon they’d maybe play on Saturday afternoon at around two-thirty.
Jak II is the PlayStation 2.
It’s got guns and cars and hover-bikes and a hovering skateboard that can grind up rails. It’s got a massive, living, breathing city. It’s got alternate French, German, Italian, Korean, and Japanese voice tracks. It’s got hours upon hours of voice acting. It’s got wacky writing. It’s got a huge plot. The hover skateboard feels amazing—like Tony Hawk shaking hands with Sonic the Hedgehog before hugging Super Mario. One can’t overestimate the involvement of Hirokazu Yasuhara, game and level designer of the original Sonic The Hedgehog games.
Again—this was a time when people were just starting to wonder what the “Citizen Kane” of games would look like. Here was the spark of a Saturday morning cartoon, captured sublimely, possessive of the size and scope and verve of a Final Fantasy and the virtuoso of a Super Mario, and though financially successful, oh, how it went critically un-screamed at.
With an enormous budget comes great gameplay variety, and so Jak II is home to some still-mind-rending action set-pieces.
You can get all three Jak games in one beautiful high-definition package for your PlayStation 3 for 20 darn dollars, man. Let me warn you, though: the game is crazy-harder than it looks like it’d be. You’ll be a superhero by the time you’re done. (And when you’re done, check out Jak 3, home of possibly The Greatest Plot Twist in games. And also superlative dune buggy physics.)
Special Bonus: I’m A Weird Jerk Section
As mentioned briefly, earlier, I am a weird jerk (thanks for not pointing it out), so I have some other games here on my PlayStation 2 shelf. I didn’t include them in the above list because they are not, strictly speaking, holistically perfectly recommendable works. I love so many things about them, though, so here we go. (Note: these are games that might not be available in English, feature defunct online play, or some similar sadness.)
Resident Evil: Outbreak
This was an experiment that didn’t work. It’s a weird little online Resident-Evil-themed action game that can best be described as a “sitact”, or a “SAG”—a Situational Action Game. Okay, that’s a terrible word. Though hey! It’s mine and I made it up and you can’t have it.
Outbreak sees players inhabiting the roles of various zombie-movie-stereotypical characters, and cooperating to complete small-scale objectives (“Get Out Of This Room”, for example). It’s heavy on cooperation and contextual voiceless chat. I mean, it’s you personally who are voiceless: your character can talk just fine. You’re playing with real people, and you need to communicate with them by delivering (at the push of a button) simple single-word phrases delivered in-character. It sounds stupidly simple, though trust me: I played this game at the height of its unpopularity, and its level design elevated the chat mechanic to transcendentally incredible. So—nope! Journey didn’t invent that feature. Sorry, Journey: you’re still cool (and a much better game than Resident Evil: Outbreak).
Do you scoff at people who say Final Fantasy Tactics is their favorite Final Fantasy game? Do you agree with people who say Fire Emblem is a better game? Have you ever maybe slightly disliked a person, found out they prefer Fire Emblem, and then wished you had a reason not to like Fire Emblem anymore? First of all, you may be a sociopath. Second of all: hey! Berwick Saga!
Shouzou Kaga, original creator of Fire Emblem, left Nintendo to form his own studio, Tirnanog, who released the really hard Tear Ring Saga for PlayStation in 2001. Berwick Saga, Tear Ring Saga’s sequel, arrived in 2005, and I required a parking lot full of ambulances (metaphor) to recover from what then ensued.
I was a real adult with a job and a significant other and a band and a life, and here was a strategy game ripping my heart out and feeding it to me eight hours a day for two solid weeks. In Berwick Saga, there is only God Mode, by which I mean the computer is God, and not you. It’s probably the best tactical strategy RPG I have ever had the pleasure of playing.
It is like, what if Advance Wars were a serial killer? That’s this.
Next time someone says Final Fantasy Tactics is “like chess”, scoff at them and say, “More like Connect Four—you haven’t played Berwick Saga you dumb noob.” Then put on your sunglasses and dolphin-flop out the nearest thirty-story window.
Armodyne is a strategy RPG by the developer of Culdcept, with art by the author of the manga “Gantz”!
How can you not love that?
Well, it’s possible that you don’t know or care who those people are, and I’m with you on that. It also has music by Yasunori Mitsuda, and is one of the best strategy RPGs I have ever played (and I have played them all (literally)). Lots of what the world loved in XCOM: Enemy Unknown was flopping around fish-gasping on dry land here in Armodyne.
It’s a mega-mapped turn-based strategy game with high unit numbers and pseudo-real-time flourishes. To wit: you give a unit medium-term orders, instead of short-term. What I mean is, you tell a unit where you would like it to eventually be. You then assign it an adverb from a short list (“cautiously”, “fearlessly”, et cetera), and it instantly moves as far as it is able. It will stay that course over multiple turns, altering its path with attention to its adverb to account for enemy movement (“cautiously” = “avoid the enemy”, et cetera). At each new turn, you can tweak individual units’ orders, or simply hit “next”.
If variety is the spice of life, minor borderline predictable randomness is the spice of heck yes. This game could have been an arena sport. It’s got some strapped-on dating-sim-like neat systems, too: assign pilots fitness or training regimens in the barracks to level up their skills in battle. And you know what?:
I sort of like Yasunori Mitsuda’s phoned-in soundtracks more than some of his passionate ones.
I am a weeping widow at the grave of cavia, whose Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex and Win Back: Project Poseidon I have already recommended you. Well, here’s the sequel to Drakengard, their would-be Dynasty Warriors With Panzer Dragoon Elements. The first was a weird game with a weird plot, and the sequel is a soupy chaos of aspiring art-fragments. It is, however, faster than Drakengard, and brutally harder. It has a sweet parry mechanic, the spears feel nice, and its set-pieces brought me back to my childhood spent watching my brother throw GI Joes at the Millennium Falcon.
It’s atmospheric and dynamic—you can jump on a dragon, shoot guys from the air, and then jump off!—and it has, as mentioned above, a sweet parry mechanic.
Spoiler: if I ever make an Xbox 360 Obituary Article, cavia’s Bullet Witch and Nier (Drakengard 2's pseudo-sequel) will probably be up at the top of the list.
Wild Arms V
Sometimes I like dumb RPGs, and none are dumber than Wild Arms V. Its battle system, however, is neat—it’s more or less Final Fantasy X, on hexagons, with location-specific attacks and movement of characters. It’s Wild Arms IV’s system, grown into its own. The dungeons have little puzzles. The characters are cute and say cute things. It’s a Saturday morning cartoon sort of game, and it good-touches the brain during the boss battles. I’m not trying to pass it off as literature, not by a longshot, though it’s a sweetly-nice little software-gesture, one that people who shrieked about Xenoblade might have a heck of a weekend with, if they were so inclined.
Tim Rogers is someone you can follow on Twitter. You can also follow his game studio Action Button Entertainment, here. Check out insert credit dot com for a wacky weekly video game-related game-show-like podcast starring him and his friends from Gamasutra.